When Nina and I were married (which, I guess in some metaphysical sense we still are? But death legally terminates marriage, so I feel like I ought to use the past tense? Widowhood is weird?), I used to like to buy her anniversary gifts based on the “traditional” list of materials that runs from Paper (1st anniversary) to Gold (50th) and all the way to Diamond (60th!).
For our first anniversary (Paper) I got her stationery (she loved making her own cards); for our third (Leather) I got a leather-bound writing journal (which now sits in a stack of unused writing journals she has received as gifts over the years — hazards of being a poet, I think?); for the tenth (Tin) I ordered tin earrings from Cornwall (and that was pre-Poldark, I was ahead of my time!); for the 12th anniversary (Silk) I got her a little silken travel pouch for jewelry; for the thirteenth (Lace) I got her … well mind your own damn business, this blog is confessional, not voyeuristic!; for our fifteenth (Crystal) I got her what turned out to be really ugly, useless, but expensive champagne flutes engraved with the date but not the year of our marriage (there wasn’t enough room!) that we toasted with once, the night of that anniversary. Some of the gifts worked out better than others, but they were all fun to buy and well-received.
None of the things I bought her were that expensive. Our gift budget, like our income, was always sufficient but never very big. The point was more the tradition, which evolved along with our marriage. When I started consulting the yearly list of traditional anniversary gifts, it was in part because I was bereft of good ideas. My gift giving was pretty mediocre. I would always be frustrated to learn that not only was the gift I thought was brilliant not what she wanted, but that over the course of any given year she’d almost invariably told me several times precisely what she wanted and I had failed to take note. There was one point where Nina had been hoping for at least three consecutive christmases that someone would buy her a really nice hairbrush and she finally just got it for herself.
As our relationship developed, so did my gift-giving skills. It took a lot of hard work, but eventually I began to develop real gift-giving creativity, skill, and a capacity to retain information given directly to me by my life partner. By the time Nina died I was pretty expert. I still bombed occasionally, but even the failures were pretty keen — high-risk high-reward type gifts — like the time I bought her a full length formal gown, something she didn’t own and I knew was unlikely to buy for herself, and she immediately returned it. She still loved getting the gift, even if the gift itself wasn’t, well, own-/keepable. Eventually the traditional materials were more of a creative prompt than a crutch. They gave me a theme, but the challenge was to find something she liked that fit the prompt.
Since Nina died one of the things I miss keenly is not having someone for whom to buy those kinds of presents. It’s a little silly, but it really was one of my favorite things about our relationship. I like buying things for the boys, my family, and my friends. But there’s nothing like nosing around for the perfect gift for someone you’re in love with. A gift that says not just “I love you,” but I do so in a ridiculous, ham-fisted, slightly kitschy, head over hells forever kind of way.
I think the gift giving thing is at least tangentially related to why I’ve been compulsive about memorializing the anniversaries of Nina’s death. I’ve slowed down some as the impact of each passing month has lessened dramatically, but for a long time it seemed almost existentially important to write or do something each month when the 26th day rolled around. Partly this was self-preservation: that time of month stirred me up every time in ways that needed expiation. But there’s also an element of continuing the tradition of celebrating our relationship, finding ways to treat Nina to something, even if it’s just my own self-flagellating periodic musings (which, believe me she heard plenty of while she was alive so it’s not like she’s missing anything, really).
I don’t really believe that our memorials are for the dead. Obviously we try to honor them, but memorials are different from anniversaries. The anniversary implies mutual recognition by the people involved — with marriage there are only anniversaries so long as both people are alive, when one dies, they stop accruing. Even in Loudon Wainwright’s divorce-anniversary song, the two people were both still alive.
Memorials are a token gesture for the living, to make up for the huge, absent fact of loss. They are a gift we give to ourselves in commemoration of someone who no longer is, in the hope that by giving it we get to channel our relationship with them a little.
Today marks another relatively insignificant, unhappy anniversary: 21 months since the day Nina died. Not two years (which would be cotton), nothing particularly significant, or even round, about the number (like 30, which is, appropriately, pearl). But it’s another chance for me to do the next best thing to celebrating anniversaries. And assuage by self-flagellation, of course. Also, the song I chose for the lede was one that Nina and I shared, but also drove her completely nuts and by the time she died she refused to let me even play it. It fits with the relationship that I’m now memorializing instead of celebrating, since I did, on very rare occasions, drive Nina crazy. Tradition is tradition, after all.